Space Jew, or, Walter Benjamin Among the Stars

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

JantarMantar2-243x366In Delhi and in four other locations across northern India stand the “Jantar Mantars,” clusters of giant astronomical instruments built by an 18th-century Maharaja, Jai Singh II, many of them so tall they seem to challenge the sky. Here’s an exercise in counterfactual history: If the German Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin had carefully explored all the possible routes out of Nazi-occupied Europe in the late 1930s, and if he had been quicker to flee Europe than he actually was, he might have escaped via the unusual route of the British-controlled subcontinent. And had he done so, he might have stood in one of the Jantar Mantars during the twilight years of the Raj and experienced the stars (a recurring and powerful motif scattered across Benjamin’s writings) anew. He probably would have reached the Jantar Mantar in Delhi or its counterpart in Jaipur, Jai Singh’s Rajasthani capital, neither of which city, incidentally, would have offered him the same culture of pedestrian flâneurship he had loved in Paris. As compensation, at night he could have looked up at the constellations, or examined the tiles depicting signs of the zodiac, which are pressed into the clay walls of the instruments. He might have appreciated Jantar Mantar’s combination of astronomical and astrological devices, and he surely would have noted the lack of conflict between astronomy and the belief in the influence of planets and stars on human fortune — indeed, the way these practices were still united on these historical instruments. The real Benjamin did not escape Europe; as is very well known, his fate was to commit suicide on the Spanish border during a failed escape to flee occupied France. It was 1940; he was 48. But try to forget this real Benjamin for a moment, and instead follow his counterfactual twin to the subcontinent.

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