All About the Benjamins

The Bookworm and the Angel

Two aspects of Walter Benjamin face each other across a narrow, bottomless chasm: the all too human pursuer of meaning—redemption—and his supernatural, Doppelgangland twin. Like a man with two left hands, on one we have the solitary intuitionist, heuristic bookworm, impoverished collector (of children's books and tattoo art, among other detritus), investigator of the private, mystical dialectician, devoted correspondent, armchair flaneur, detached student of hashish and prostitution, Jewish alchemist (gnomic specialty: changing ruins into runes), and infinitely well-prepared suicide (disappearer might be a better term). On the other, the more imposing mythic figure of an intellectual guardian angel whose peripatetic afterlife has seen him rise from history's wreckage like a refugee from some unmade Wim Wenders film (we'll call it Paris, Capital of Desire).

This second, ur-Benjamin is the patron saint of lost causes and oxymoronic dreams (utopian apocalypse, illuminated distraction, Marxist unorthodoxy), providing the impetus for countless tomes (subject to such archaeological exegesis as Susan Buck-Morss's The Dialectics of Seeing, besides serving as the decisive inspiration for works like Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air). Benjamin's unforgettable image of "the angel of history," helplessly blown backward into the future by the "storm . . . we call progress," has even gone quasi-pop, resurrected in songs by Laurie Anderson ("The Dream Before") and the Mekons ("Sorcerer"). "Ooh," the Mekons added with a little phantasmagorical twinkle, "the abyss is close to home."

Which in a tough nutshell is the perpetual exile's lot: At home only in the void, inhabiting the space between the world as it is and what it might be, Benjamin would naturally be claimed by the tradition of the outcast and the misfit, as well as that of the prophet. And thus canonized and sanctified as a cultural symbol—the dispossessed critic as knight-exemplar of paradoxical, self-divided modernity—Walter Benjamin has suffered a similar fate to that of his spiritual cousin Franz Kafka, albeit on a somewhat more obscure academic scale. (The Benjaminesque isn't so widely recognized as a state of being or mind: It patiently awaits the transformation of the asociological into the universal.) Posthumously, he has become a convenient, all-points totem, one whose blessing and validation are sought through the offerings of a host of supplicants. In this shopworn, once-upon-a-time-in-academe form, he stands for an indivisible synthesis of blissful disenchantment and unshaken theoretical faith.

Devoted absorption: Walter Benjamin in Paris, 1937
photo: Gisèle Freund
Devoted absorption: Walter Benjamin in Paris, 1937


Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship
By Gershom Scholem
New York Review Books, 302 pp., $14.95
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Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938
By Walter Benjamin
Harvard University Press, 462 pp., $39.95
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Gershom Scholem's Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, a memoir Scholem wrote in 1975, 35 years after Benjamin's death and only a few before his own, represented an attempt to reclaim Benjamin and his legacy from the early stages of the reification process. With an eloquent mix of tact, candor, reserve, and affection, the great Kabbalist scholar set out to reinstate the centrality of Jewish metaphysics to his dearest friend's life and thought. In doing so, Scholem argued the Marxist influence exerted on Benjamin by Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht diverted him from his essential calling as a radical interpreter of Judaic tradition. At the same time, Scholem places WB in the context of his real, unvarnished life: the milieu of German-Jewish intellectuals in the ever bleaker interregnum between the world wars, the incessant pressure of "battle fatigue on the economic front" by a thinker who was profoundly unsuitable for academic "habilitation" and a writer who was no better equipped to either the demands of the capitalist marketplace or the Communist party line.

The Story of a Friendship is a polemical yet evenhanded book: There's not a feeling of settling old scores so much as diligently, fastidiously setting the record straight to the extent the author is in a position to do so. The sense it gives of Benjamin's relationship to Adorno and Brecht is not of someone brainwashed or corrupted, but rather of a man caught up in fraught, problematic intellectual romances—in Brecht's case, Scholem cites a "slavish-masochistic" undertone to Benjamin's hero-worshiping attitude, which is in keeping with the doomed romantic attachments he had with women. (Scholem sighs: "One of his close acquaintances told me that for her and her female friends he had not even existed as a man, that it never even occurred to them that he had that dimension as well. 'Walter was, so to speak, incorporeal.' ")

Certainly by the time covered in Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938, Benjamin's attraction to the terminology and assurances of historical materialism had reached its zenith: This was a system that promised to not only explain the world, but redeem it by bringing about an absolute transparency in human relations (parallel to the transparency of God's word) and replace arbitrary, irrational power with justice. Here, then, are the desperately earnest paeans to Brecht ("The Land Where the Proletariat May Not Be Mentioned"—"Such drama . . . will emerge as a testament in bronze for posterity"), the heavy-dutiful essays like "A German Institute for Independent Research" (a positive evaluation of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, on whose financial support Benjamin depended at the time, but which came with Marxist strings attached) and "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility" (a longer and more convincing version of Benjamin's famous theory of film, introducing some valuable material about the role of "play").

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