A side. Walter Benjamin on The Otter

18 Feb

Many of you know–if you see how many of my ZooBorns shares  on Facebook involve them–that I love otters.  And Benjamin is my favorite German aphorist/philosopher/essayist.  So the following is the perfect essay for a Friday share.

This is from his wonderful book, Berlin Childhood around 1900, Howard Eiland, trans.,  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006:

The Otter

One forms an image of a person’s nature and character according to his place of residence and the neighborhood he inhabits, and that is exactly what I did with the animals of the Zoological Garden. From the ostriches marshaled before a backgrotmd of sphinxes and pyramids, to the hippopotamus that dwelt in its pagoda like a tribal sorcerer on the point of merging bodily with the demon he serves, there was hardly an animal whose habitation did not inspire me with love or fear. Rarer were those which, by the location of their housing alone, already had something particular about them: inhabitants of the outskirts, mainly—of those sections where the Zoological Garden borders on coffeehouses or the exhibition hall. Among all the denizens of these regions, however, the most remarkable was the otter.  Of the three main entry gates, the one by Lichtenstein Bridge was closest to the otter’s enclosure; it was by far the least used entranceway, and it led into the most neglected part of the garden. At that point, the avenue which welcomed the visitor resembled, with the white globes of its lampposts, an abandoned promenade at Eilsen or Bad Pyrmont; and long before those places lay so desolate as to seem more ancient than the baths of Rome, this corner of the Zoological Garden bore traces of what was to come. It was a prophetic corner. For just as there are plants that are said to confer the power to see into the future, so there are places that possess such a virtue. For the most part, they are deserted places—treetops that lean against walls, blind alleys or front gardens where no one ever stops. In such places, it seems as if all that lies in store for us has become the past. Thus, it was always in this part of the Zoological Garden, when I had lost my way and strayed into it, that I was granted a look over the edge of the pool that welled up here, as in the middle of a spa. This was the cage of the otter. And a cage it was, for strong iron bars rimmed the basin in which the animal lived.  A small rock formation, constructed with grottoes, lined the oval of the basin in the background.  It had no doubt been conceived as shelter for the animal, but I never once found it there. And so time and again I would remain, endlessly waiting, before those black and impenetrable depths, in order somewhere to catch sight of the otter. If I finally succeeded, it was certainly just for an instant, for in the blink of an eye the glistening inmate of the cistern would disappear once more into the wet night. Of course, the otter was not actually kept in a cistern. Nevertheless, when I gazed into the water, it always seemed as though the rain poured down into all the street drains of the city only to end up in this one basin and nourish its inhabitant. For this was the abode of a pampered animal whose empty, damp grotto was more a temple than a refuge. It was the sacred animal of the rainwater. But whether it was formed in this runoff of the rains, or only fed from arriving streams and rivulets, is something I could not have decided.  Always it was occupied to the utmost, as if its presence in the deep were indispensable. But I could easily have passed long, sweet days there, my forehead pressed up against the iron bars of its cage, without ever getting enough of the sight of the creature. And here, too, its dose affinity with the rain is manifest. For, to me, the long, sweet day was never longer, never sweeter, than when a fine- or thick-toothed drizzle slowly combed the animal for hours and minutes. Docile as a young maiden, it bowed its head under this gray comb. And I looked on insatiably then. I waited. Not until it stopped raining, but until it came down in sheets, ever more abundantly.  I heard it drumming on the windowpanes, streaming out of gutters, and rushing in a steady gurgle down the drainpipes. In a good rain, I was securely hidden away.  And it would whisper to me of my future, as one sings a lullaby beside the cradle.  How well I understood that it nurtures growth.  In such hours passed behind the gray-gloomed window, I was at home with the otter. But actually I wouldn’t become aware of that until the next time I stood before the cage.  Then, once again, I had a long while to wait before the glistening black body darted up to the surface, only to hurry back almost immediately to urgent affairs below.

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