Howard Eiland, a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology literature faculty retiree and scholar, discussed the theme of “reality as palimpsest” and the work of critical theorist Walter Benjamin in a talk on Thursday afternoon.

Eiland, author of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, which was released earlier this year, and co-editor and translator of multiple volumes of English editions of Benjamin’s work, focused primarily on the relationship between past and present.

A palimpsest—manuscript or piece of writing that has been reused or altered, while still maintaining traces of its earlier form—is relevant to understanding Benjamin and his work in multiple ways. For one, Eiland highlighted an analogy, referring to the palimpsest as a “vertical montage” whose layers “bleed into one another.” He noted that images are often viewed, forgotten and retrieved once again. Eiland said at the event that “attentive immersion and multi-dimensional concreteness”—or “that way of seeing through different windows simultaneously”—is an act that is “both very new and very old.”

Eiland began the lecture first by noting the challenge in studying Benjamin, stating that “everything in creation becomes a text to be interpreted, a picture puzzle to decipher. The only problem is that the material must be deciphered in the absence of a definitive code.”

He continued on to explain the connection between the past and present with Benjamin’s image of the flâneur—or the lounger or wanderer, which symbolizes the modern experience. Eiland said that the flâneur outlook is representative of the emergence of dialectical image, looking both backward and forward in time. As Benjamin wrote in his book titled Arcades Project, “It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”

Eiland elaborated on this, saying that the “meaning of past events is actualized,” and reconstructed “with concerns of the present day.” He said that Benjamin speaks of historical understanding as a “focal point of attention and remembrance.” The flâneur sees traces of the past that infiltrate the present landscape, as Eiland explained. “Experience unfolds as elusive dream,” he said. The theme of the past and present fits in with Benjamin’s criticism of historicism and historical materialism.

Benjamin died before he could finish Arcades Project. The publication has drawn attention due to the decisions of editors in ordering the work and as such, has been compared to a palimpsest itself. Eiland is one of these editors who worked on the project.

In a question-and-answer session following Eiland’s talk, the complexities in Benjamin’s thought were addressed. Benjamin, a part of the Frankfurt School of thought of which former Brandeis professor and German philosopher Herbert Marcuse was also a part, combines aspects of German idealism and Marxism in his thought.

Eiland described Benjamin as “optimistic” and “communistic” in some of his works, while also taking on a more traditional role as a storyteller in others. He asserted that he believes these both comprise the “real Benjamin,” despite the contradiction it provides. “His whole way of thinking is animated by contradiction, and I suppose that’s because the world is seen as contradictory, and the only way to be true to it is somehow to embody those contradictions,” Eiland said.

Patrick Gamsby, a scholarly communications librarian and History of Ideas lecturer who teaches the History of Ideas program core course, introduced Eiland at the event. Gamsby said that about 50 people attended the event in an interview with the Justice. He said that attendees were “able to hear about a very important disciplinary figure” and “learn more about him from one of the foremost experts.” Gambsy added that he hoped attendees took away “the fact that critical theory, or the Frakfurt School, is still relevant and still of interest.”

The event was sponsored by the History of Ideas program, the European Cultural Studies program and the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections.

—Hannah Wulkan contributed reporting.