Martin Benjamin ’57, the curmudgeonly alumnus who has developed quite a reputation in recent years as a sharp critic of liberal Wesleyan culture in open letters to the Argus, apparently has a softer side.
When he’s not writing bitter, condescending Wespeaks, he is an artist with a penchant for photographing leaves.
Liz Tung of the Argus went to check out his art exhibit, a series of five photographs called “Invitation to the Dance”, in the Main Street Market last week and actually met the guy, who explained to her the ideas behind his craft, spoke sullenly about his relationship to Wesleyan, and provided only vague hints of his past:
Benjamin was disappointingly normal-looking. Somehow I had expected someone who looked like the Penguin – a snippy, sharp-faced and slightly rotund older man who wore bowties, and carried a heavy wooden cane, the better for whacking whatever liberal moron chanced to get in his way. The real Benjamin was tall and thin with glasses and a beard – and he was wrapped in flannel, rather than a suit. He greeted me and then almost immediately disappeared (the better, he later told me, to let me absorb his works without distraction).
…As you may have gathered [from his Wespeaks], Benjamin is a bit of a kook and more than a bit of a bigot, albeit a sharp one with a talent for rhetoric. It is this – the perverse magnetism and novelty of his writing – that has allowed Benjamin to install himself as a fixture in the Argus’ Wespeaks page, and thereby vex generations of Wesleyan students.
To hear Benjamin’s side of it, though, Wespeaks are a mere distraction from his real work – making art. He began photographing leaves roughly 15 years ago, originally as illustrations for a book of historical poems. “Since [the poems] were intended for kids …to get them interested in the drama of history, I thought that history could be illustrated somehow in a way that would make the poems more alive to them,” Benjamin said. “The problem was that I had no talent for painting or drawing.” From this predicament was born Benjamin’s novel solution – leaves… Soon, the photographs had expanded beyond his poems, and the leaves became artistic subjects in their own right.
Benjamin took me through the brief display with a kind of grim relish, explaining in detail the mechanics of his photography and composition…
…Although verbose in his explanations [of his art], Benjamin was less forthcoming on other fronts. For a man who’s spent so much time cultivating his own notoriety, Benjamin proved surprisingly reticent to talk about himself. He refused to have his picture taken and was taciturn about his own history. When pressed, Martin admitted that, after college, he’d spent a couple years in the army before going to Columbia for grad school. Of the years between then and now, he’d only say that he’d spent a few years as a bartender in Midtown, Manhattan. He said anyone who wanted to know more could read his novel “Bagatelles” (which, he only mentioned later, has not yet been published).
Benjamin declined to answer follow-up questions, insisting that further information about his life would only distract from the work.
So he’s about as evasive about himself as you might expect from someone so eager to dish out criticism of others. But it’s nice to see that he has interests beyond excoriating Wesleyan students, and almost endearing that his great passion in life is seeing visions of Greek mythology and Shakesperean sonnets in fallen leaves.
I wonder how he feels about this exposure of his sensitivity. He clearly thrives on antagonism – might Martin Benjamin be so embarrassed by the Argus‘s portrayal of him as a big softy that he stops sending cutting letters to Wesleyan out of shame? Or should we expect him to respond to this taint on his reputation, defending himself as someone who is actually a jerk despite what was reported? Or maybe this shift of focus away from his disdain for joy and youth and towards his art made his day, and any future attempts at haterade from him will lose their edge?
It might be fun to terrify him with effusive Wespeaks praising his gentle soul and unlikely creativity, disarming him with genuinely positive expressions of emotion instead of trying to attack him back with strongly worded responses.
Or next time he rants about the “Great Black Hope” Obama, dismisses global climate change as a frivolous concern, or complains about how gay diversity training is, one might respond with a charming photo of swirling leaves enacting the battle of woodland sprites in The Rape of the Lock.
Whatever the outcome, I look forward to seeing where this goes.