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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > August 2016 > Flights of the dream bird

Flights of the dream bird

Walter Benjamin’s genius was for surreal visions haunted by mortality, says Adam Kirsch

The Storyteller: Short Stories

by Walter Benjamin, translated by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski (Verso, £12.99)

To call a writer “elegiac” is to suggest that he or she is sad, but only a little. On these terms, Walter Benjamin cannot be called an elegiac writer; his interest in death, dying and the dead is too disquieting and pervasive. Yet there is no doubt that Benjamin is constantly drawn to what has disappeared, or is on the brink of disappearing. “The true picture of the past flits by,” he writes in his last major essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again.”

The modern age, Benjamin suggests, is defined by this sense of the precariousness of the past. Where history and tradition were once things to be handed down, generation by generation, they are now fleeting presences, which must be trapped in the same way birds or ghosts are trapped—deviously, by sideways approaches. “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was,’” he writes. “It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”

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In Prospect’s August issue: Rachel Sylvester argues that the EU referendum has started a re-alignment of British politics while Roger Scruton and Jay Elwes say that it has thrown Britain into a bout of self-examination with the fundamental question of who we are as a nation at its centre. In addition, Peter Mandelson says without reform the EU could fall victim to a populist uprising. Also in this issue: Philip Ball explores quantum entanglement, George Magnus looks at the political situation in Brazil ahead of the Olympics and Adam Mars-Jones unpicks the work of Steven Spielberg. James Cusick looks at the impact of the Chilcot report and Kathy Lette explains what the world would be like if she was in charge.