Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751
VAN VUUREN, Helize. J.S. Bach's Passacaglia and Walter Benjamin's Das Passagen-Werk - literary montage as mosaic in Memorandum. A story with paintings (2006). Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2014, vol.54, n.3, pp.505-523. ISSN 2224-7912.
The conclusion of Agaat (2004) suggests the cosmopolitan ideological stance in Memorandum through metafictional comments. Proceeding to Memorandum, it is read as constituting, inter alia, an in memoriam for the initiator and co-contributor to the book, the painter Adriaan van Zyl. He was roughly the same age as Walter Benjamin, in his late forties, when his promising artistic career ended abruptly with his death in September 2006 (shortly after the production of the book). Van Niekerk's surface narrative of a terminally ill cancer patient, is accompanied by Van Zyl's reproductions of his Tygerberg "Hospital Series 2004‐2006", with the last painting, "The waiting room", left incomplete, due to his death. The short narrative text is also highly philosophical, suggesting concern with the whole of western culture and humanity 's future. In Memorandum Van Niekerk set a daunting task for herself (as formulated through the fictive beginning writer, Wiid, at the start of "Memorandum 3"): to translate Bach's Passacaglia and fugue in D Minor (BMW 582) into prose and plausibly to write a smaller, Afrikaans version of Walter Benjamin 's Das Passagen-Werk (1983), a text in which the architecture of Parow (a Cape Town suburb) and reflections upon it, determine the structure of the narrative. Benjamin 's text is woven around a mosaic of quotations, with his own comments interspersed. This incomplete work overwhelms the reader with its volume and strange textual apparatus. Van Niekerk's narrative has the same effect with its word lists, addenda, copious footnotes plus memoranda in different graphic formats. Incompleteness, discontinuity, a yearning forward to completion, is the absent presence. Yet both texts get caught up in the artists' deaths (Benjamin 's and Van Zyl's). Incompleteness is a permanent characteristic of both texts. Benjamin (1892‐1940) identified three consecutive steps for the production of good prose: firstly a musical level, on which it is composed, thereafter an architectonic one, on which it is built, and eventually a textile level, on which it is woven (1972:102). Benjamin 's oeuvre is an important intertext for Memorandum and identifying the separate levels of composition, structuring (or building) and weaving is a useful tool for understanding the narrative text. The musical level on which it is composed, corresponds to the twenty variations constituting Bach 's Passacaglia (Mulbury 1972c). Van Niekerk's narrative is "composed" around the nocturnal dialogue between the dying patients X and Y on the night of 5 October 2005, with Wiid listening in as another patient in the same ward (presumably an oncology ward). Each variation is centered around a certain hour of the night, starting at nine, and ending at around six o'clock in the morning. Following on the permutation logic in Bach 's iconic composition, Van Niekerk strives for a similar classic text with her narrative. For architectonic structure the author of Memorandum uses topoi from Benjamin 's convolutes (the flâneur, the poet-writer, the collector, eternal return, catacombs, dream city and dream house, the streets ofthe city, literary history, and mirrors, Benjamin 1983:81). The textile design, upon which it is woven, has to do with the weaving through of detailed references to fill each ofthe topoi. For the ideal house, city and building, she uses especially Joseph Rykwert's Adam's house in paradise, but also Idea of a town and The seduction of place; for the dehumanizing of modern medicinal practice, Iva nIlich 's "Hospitality and pain" an dLimits to medicine; Gaston Bachelard's The poetics of space for the idea of bird nests as ideal homes; Friedrich Nietzsche 's Ecce homo for the nature of the ideal reader, and Benjamin 's Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiel for ideas on the nature of tragedy and contemplation of death. To complicate matters, thematic content also deals with urban architectural designs, music and textiles (mosaics, nest weaving and Mexican quipo). In Van Niekerk 's text the consciousness of a multitude of micro- and macrospheres (Sloterdijk 2004) replaces Benjamin 's prophetic cultural consciousness of a dawning new technological era (1970:219‐254). The narrative text is organised like a highly dense, non-hierarchical neural network. In Memorandum (an infinitely shorter text than Das Passagen-Werk) the reader finds a similar montage technique of a mosaic of citations throughout. In his central section on Baudelaire Benjamin remarks: "The poet has made his dwelling in space itself, one could say - or in the abyss" (1999:352). Van Niekerk's Memorandum ties onto this idea, via Heidegger - Wiid, as archetypal poet, experiences "Unheimlichkeit" intensely in the hospital, and even at home in his desolate flat. The similarity between Bach and Benjamin's greatest works, Passacaglia and Das Passagen-Werk, is not by accident. In both works walking, wandering or flâneurship plays a central role ("passe"=walk and "calle"=street, while "passage" in French refers to walkways between small shops, or arcades). Similarly there is a walking up and down passageways at the opening and in the cyclical ending of Memorandum. In Van Niekerk 's narrative the suggested presence ofa multitude ofspheres (Debray 1995; Sloterdijk 2004) replaces Benjamin 's prophetic cultural consciousness of the dawning of a new technological era (1970:219‐254). Benjamin 's Paris is juxtaposed with Van Niekerk's Parow, a large northern suburb of Cape Town, complete with prostitutes, street vendors and crowds, a large hospital and shops. There is also a feasible link between Bach 's baroque music and Benjamin 's study of baroque literature in Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (1928).
Keywords : Marlene van Niekerk; Memorandum; Agaat; Afrikaans literature; South African literature; Bach's Passacaglia; Benjamin's Das Passagen-Werk; metatextuality; literary montage; mosaics.