Book Review: ‘Walter Benjamin Reimagined’ by Frances Cannon

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Walter Benjamin Reimagined: A Graphic Translation of Poetry, Prose, Aphorisms, and Dreams

Frances Cannon — MIT Press

Artist, former Iowa Citian and sometime-Little Village contributor Frances Cannon has delivered a delightful, insightful nugget of wonder with Walter Benjamin Reimagined. This book is everything a fan of the German Jewish cultural critic and philosopher could ever hope for, and it offers an accessible window into his brilliance that even the most casual of readers can appreciate.

In this book, which comments and folds in on itself trippingly, taking the reader along for the ride, Cannon has curated a seemingly haphazard but deliciously fraught selection from Benjamin’s oeuvre and placed herself in conversation with it through her art. It is, perhaps, a new genre of its own: deeper than mere illustration, broader in scope than most graphic novels or memoirs, more personal than the typical philosophical treatise.

Benjamin’s writings on literary theory, translation and cultural criticism make him a ripe target for treatment such as is offered here. Cannon takes Benjamin’s writings and not only responds to and illuminates them but translates them, creating what she calls in her preface “a visual echo of his work.” There is layer upon layer upon layer of meaning in this volume, every choice a joy to sit with.

Cannon’s work is at its best when it is inviting the reader to lay down additional layers upon it, to contribute to its creation. “A Child’s View of Color,” for example, winds in and around Benjamin’s words (including, “Color is something spiritual … The rainbow is a pure childlike image”) with images that take on a nonexistent, entirely imagined color. Helped along by her expert shading, Cannon’s black-and-white drawings — a peacock, a soap bubble, children’s masks — jump off the page with a vibrancy that the reader’s mind can’t help but assign colors to. It’s a kind of magic.

The endearing, hand-written style of text, the choppy whirlwind of quote choices and the obvious deep love for the source material combine to make Walter Benjamin Reimagined a gem.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 268.

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